The Dilemma of Trajectory

Excerpted from Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions

The changes that come with Transition in any formative process involves more than just letting go of one stage and moving to another—they bring into question the whole developmental orientation that has defined growth and truth. Transition presents a critical quandary that might seem a show-stopper. Creative Systems Theory calls it the Dilemma of Trajectory. A simple way to recognize this quandary is the way each stage in formative process’s first half is defined by greater distinction between poles and a greater emphasis on difference more generally.

At transition, this defining impetus reaches an extreme. Going further in this direction stops giving us anything of value. Indeed there is an important sense in which it really stops being possible at all. Contrasting our two definition of maturity both highlights this quandary and clarify how further options—indeed rich and important options—might lie beyond it.

The first half of personal development is marked by processes that produce ever-greater individuality, independence, and authority over the world around us. Our first definition of personal maturity—“growing up” in our first-half sense—continues this familiar trajectory. But while this general direction of change works well in the first half of our lives—it is what defines growth—in the second half of life it stops serving us in the same way. If we continue on as we have, the second half of life becomes increasingly absurd, at best a thin caricature of youth.

Successfully engaging second-half-of-life developmental challenges produces changes of a specifically integrative sort. This is not to say that individuality becomes less, in fact it continues to grow, often manifesting in particularly delightful and idiosyncratic ways. But when we successfully take on second-half-of-life developmental tasks, the tendency toward difference becomes counterbalanced by equally important integrative mechanisms.

With culture’s story to this point, we see changes analogous those we encounter with personal development’s first half. In a similar way, we witness growing impetus toward individuality, independence, and authority. The invention of fire freed human migration. The Magna Carta affirmed basic human privilege. And our Modern Age has continued such appropriately proud advancement. The truths of our Modern Age have their foundation in increasing delineation of the individual will and growing independence from the constraints of nature and the irrational. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right of the individual to the pursuit of happiness. And the Industrial Age brought dramatic new expressions of human dominion and control. In their timeliness, such achievements could not have been more profound.

But this developmental trajectory, has today, in a similar way to what we see with personal development, stopped serving us as it has in the past. The tasks of our time demand accomplishments of a different sort.

While much of what we have reaped, and will continue to reap, from our ability to stand separate in the sense of individuality and autonomy of choice is profound, the future cries out as much for a new appreciation of how we are related, a fresh understanding of caring, community, and the common good. In a similar way, while culture’s evolution has also brought with it increasing human control—over nature, over our own bodies, over life’s deep mysteries—today almost the opposite seems equally a part of what is needed, a new humility to what we cannot control, a new sensitivity to when we should be listening as opposed to directing (whether the voice needing attention is the natural world, our tissues, or the unfathomable).

We confront profound questions, indeed questions with God-like implications, but the authority needed to address them is not some ascension to a chair of final dominion (ourselves somehow becoming God). It is also different from some further iteration of the Enlightenment’s grand goal of bringing all of understanding into the pure light of awareness and realizing final control over the untamed. Indeed, many of the problems we face in today’s world derive from just such hubristic notions of what right action is about. We are left in a pickle that cannot be resolved within the assumptions of our first kind of maturity. Any familiar notion of going forward threatens to take us in very wrong directions.

The Dilemma of Trajectory is significant not just because ignoring it will result in misguided actions. There is a way in which it stops us in our tracks. In the next chapter, we will look at how the past’s story of growing distinction, taken far enough, threatens to severe us from much that is most important in being human. But we can use the Creative Function to get at this result more abstractly. If it is accurate to think of cultural evolution as creative, proceeding further in this direction of distinction and separation leaves us at a dead end. Distinction and separation can only go so far. Cultural Maturity—or at least something that can produce changes similar to the more integrative mechanisms the concept describes—becomes the only real option.